FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – This is what bad teams do. They find ways to lose, all the while helping the opposition heal itself, at least for a few hours.
The Steelers are a bad team right now, and the group they laid their healing hands upon this time were a bunch of New England Patriots who began the day seemingly incapable of the kind of scorched-earth offense for which their previous teams were well-known and ended it with more points and more yards than any team ever had amassed against a Steelers franchise in business now for 81 NFL seasons. A Steelers franchise that is known for, and prides itself in, its defense.
The applicable numbers from Gillette Stadium were 55 points, 610 yards, and 2-6. Those represent New England's point total in its 55-31 victory, the offensive yards it mustered along the way, and the Steelers record through the first half of this 2013 season.
In the run-up to what had the makings of a somewhat even tussle, there were two facts that appeared to contradict each other in describing these 2013 New England Patriots. The first was that quarterback Tom Brady's passer rating was 74.9 – at the time behind Jake Locker, Ryan Tannehill, Matt Schaub, and Chad Henne – and the second was that the team's record was 6-2.
Their offense was tied for fifth in the NFL in fewest turnovers, but it was a mediocre 18th in red zone efficiency, and a below-the-line 29th in third-down conversion rate. The only defense in the NFL softer vs. the run than New England's was Jacksonville's, and the Patriots also were a below-the-line 23rd in third-down conversions allowed.
It figured that Steelers-Patriots would come down to comparative red zone efficiency, plus whether the Steelers would be able to run the football and thus win time of possession. So based on that criteria, this should have been a signature triumph for the Steelers this season, because they were an outstanding 75 percent in the red zone and averaged 5.4 yards per rush on the way to possessing the ball for close to three minutes more than the Patriots.
And yet it was a butt-kicking, a game where the Steelers fell behind early, 24-10, and then collapsed late, 28-7 in the fourth quarter, and along the way their defense was like a trip to Lourdes for Brady and the Patriots passing game.
Tom Brady is a great quarterback, and he has had some great games, but last Sunday here it was a three-hour highlights tape. He completed 23-of-33 for 432 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions, all of which worked out to a rating of 151.8. A perfect rating is 158.3, and if Brady's performance fell short of numerically perfect, it most certainly did pass the eye test for what that's supposed to look like.
And on a different day, it might be reasonable to explain the Steelers performance in the glare of Brady's greatness. But that doesn't really work this time, not with the way he had been performing, and especially not with the assemblage of offensive personnel around him and what that assemblage had been capable of producing this season up until last Sunday at 4:25 p.m. EST.
Rob Gronkowski has had a lot of games where he has put up dominating statistics, but against the Steelers he posted a career-high in catches with nine. Wide receiver Aaron Dobson's two touchdown catches had to represent a career-high for him as well, especially with him being a rookie from Marshall with only two previous touchdown receptions in his brief career.
Wes Welker is in Denver. Aaron Hernandez is in prison. There isn't a running back on New England's roster you'd pick over Le'Veon Bell.
The week before the game against the Steelers, Brady's right tackle was taken off the field with an air cast protecting his broken leg, and the rest of the offensive line is just a bunch of guys except for Logan Mankins, a one-time Pro Bowl shoe-in who this year had been playing like a guy with nine NFL seasons in the middle of the line of scrimmage on his body.
This is the group that hung historic numbers on the Steelers here last Sunday. Just as the Minnesota Vikings offense had turned them into the Washington Generals on the pitch at Wembley Stadium, and this year's Bears defense got to roll up the takeaways and sacks just like their mid-1980s predecessors, and Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor became the human highlight film he had been at Jeannette High School, the 2013 New England Patriots scored more points and gained more yards than any opponent in the history of Pittsburgh's NFL franchise.
That is what bad teams do.
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